I’ve seen many people posting to online forums “what should I know before starting my first ultramarathon?” From my experiences, no race is the same. The lessons will vary from race to race, but, here are a few that I think are the most notable considerations for your first go at the “long” races, and a fair attempt at some humor, at least from my first time experiences in 50ks-100Ms.
1) Trust your training
When you get to that starting line, you are as trained as you can be. There is no magic last-minute trick to make it easier. If you did everything you could in your training, then, you did everything you could. Plus, chances are you paid for the race. The price-per-mile is cheaper than that big city road race or corn starch fight, so relax your nerves, buckle up for a wild ride, and enjoy the view.
2) There is only one way to get better at hills…
…And that is to run hills. Hills build endurance, strength (which translates to speed) and get your body accustomed to long days on repetitive ups and downs. I make an effort to do some kind of hills 3-4 times a week, at least one of those days being a long hill session, and have seen a drastic increase in hill ability over the past 6 months of it. If you practice on hills, you’ll get better; I promise. On race day, you’ll be able to stare down the mountain, laugh, and conquer it. You will also prevent an overuse injury from unprepared muscles. Hills hurt, yes. But so does running an ultra undertrained. Go work toward greatness!
3) Learn your pace
Whether you are running your first hometown 50k or trying to go top 10 at WS, LT, HR, or RRR, make sure to conserve your energy from the start, The experience is exhilarating, exciting, and you will feel like a badass starting a long race. If you want to finish the race reveling in the same realm of badassery, knowing your pace is paramount. Long runs, back to back long runs, hills, and nutrition training all play into knowing your acceptable pace and making it to the finish efficiently.
4) Know your nutrition
You are going to need more than Gu. There are lots of methods of nutrition out there. Some people use complete powders like Tailwind, some people use whole foods, fresh produce, junk food, etc. Experiment with finding something that goes down easy, tastes good after a few hours of running, and consistently works. Beware that your stomach may flip during an ultra. What sounded like a good idea might not work at all for you at mile XX. Make sure to have a back up plan, or prepare yourself to fuel up anyway. You dont want to reach a “bonk”- the state of imbalanced/depleted electrolytes+fuel. It can be a rough place to get out of, and commonly leads to nausea, etc.
Personal note: PBJ and banana sandwiches, V8 juice, salt tablets, fruit cocktail, and oreos are my tried and true fuels, all of which I rarely eat outside of races. You might be surprised what you crave after XX miles.
5) Shoes, Socks, and Sandals. (and blisters)
Go to your running store and be fitted for a shoe. This seems obvious, but if you are wearing an Adrenaline, you might never run again after running an ultra in Kiger. Maybe you will, but, my point is, be nice to your feet. Practice in the model you want to race in. Also, wool socks! (Smartwool, Balega) They are way more absorbent than cotton, but also antimicrobial. You won’t die from your own stench, which is a stench you should be proud of. There is the relatively inevitable happening of blisters, especially if you anticipate water crossings, rain, or mud. Spare shoes, socks, or foot powder can be life savers at well-planned aid station bags. If you are on a 100 and have limited aid stations, know that you may have to drain blisters on the trail. On my first 100, my blisters became so big I could not even stand, and had to use my fingernails to make a small drainage incision. Of course it is frowned upon, but it had a part in getting me to the finish line. Sandals at the finish line are like finding a holy grail. Your feet are likely to be swollen, on top of blisters, and it gets them out of sweaty socks and damp shoes, and into air while giving you some protection from pebbles and whatnot, which will hurt under your tired feet.
6) Use a crew.
Especially if it is your first ultra. Note: a pacer is not absolutely necessary- you may like the challenge of going it alone. But for a first time ultra, it will be nice to have someone waiting for you at the aid stations to tend to your mental breakdowns AKA diva mode, stubbed toe, or other issues such as nutrition, hallucinations, or just to encourage you and tell you you aren’t, in fact, crazy for running 31-200 miles. They can do some of the thinking for you, and force down some calories to prevent the bonk. You can let out your frustrations on them (accidentally, and apologize later) but for the most part, they make the race a more comfortable experience and are a positive milestone to look forward to.
7) Practice night runs.
If you are going for a 100K-100M+, get used to running at night. And by that, staying up all day before going for your long run at 1-3am. It will train your body for the exhaustion, give you peace of mind in the woods where Bigfoot, zombies, and other mythical things are initially believed to lurk. I have found it to help with depth perception with headlamp as well. Shadows can play games with you on the trail, so it helps to be able to determine what you are actually looking at. Some people find it also helps prevent hallucinations to practice at night; these can be pleasant short moments, or miles-long nightmares of your body telling you it is exhausted from pushing through some kind of barrier. Best to lose a bit of sleep and train for the darkness; from personal experience, it’s not cool to imagine wolves chasing after you.
8) People are awesome.
Take a moment to say hi to people who you pass… or who pass you. Everybody out there is running the same race as you, and it is interesting to get their perspective on the race. You might find a new friendship, training buddy, romance, etc. You might also be able to help pick somebody up out of a bonk, and it feels good to help out a fellow runner. Everybody has a story to tell, something to offer, and the trail running community is a phenomenal community.
9) Embrace the journey.
Try not to look at your feet the whole time, if you can avoid it. Make sure to look around at your surroundings. Nature is amazing, and it can take your mind off the miles for a while. At the top of each hill is a new view; take it in. While running Superior 100, I was nearly forced to concentrate on the extremely rugged ground, yet, I knew that there were panoramic views all around me. When I was able to look around, it was a reward each time, and it reminded me that…
10) You are unique.
Not many people can say they ran an ultramarathon. You are unique. You are strong. You have an able body that can accomplish incredible feats of endurance, because you created that endurance through months or years of training. You have given yourself the opportunity to see the world on foot; most people do it through a car window or on an LCD. Remember that as you run along, and be proud of your achievements so far. Of course, finishing is a great thing, however, know that DNF only stands for “Did Nothing Foolish”. If you think you are going to be injured by continuing, go ahead and save that training and dedication toward something later in the season rather than having to sit the whole season out. It happens to everybody. Regardless, your self-determination has taken you through the training, and will lead you on to the finish. Congrats.
Whether a finish or a DNF, stick around at the finish for a while to watch people come in. It is inspirational, fun, and solidifies the fact that you were not the only person having a tough day, or that other people had worse races than you did. Either way, this is again another place to meet some exceptional peers, reflect on the miles and scenery, have a victory beer, and figure out where your feet will take you next.
Cheers, and good luck.
-see you on the trails.